“Straw Dogs” by John Gray

Gray’s book – like much of his work – is an attack upon religion, especially the monotheistic, Judaeo-Christian variety. He sees this as influencing the secular humanist beliefs in the fundamental goodness of human nature, and the possibility of social progress – both of which Gray rejects, arguing that that a distorted understanding of Darwinism is responsible. However, he argues, if we read Darwin correctly, then humans are merely animals, driven by irrational instincts, and therefore destined never to improve or escape these dictates. He also points out that Darwinian evolution has no end or purpose – another humanist misreading – and therefore that humanity cannot be seen as its highest expression. As such, he sees even Nietzsche as caught up in an alternative expression of the humanist spell. It is the tragic expression of these two mistakes that Gray traces in this and other books.

In contrast, Gray champions the pessimistic nihilism of Schopenhauer and looks similarly to Buddhism to relieve us of the necessary suffering implied in all existence. I’m not sure this really provides much solace, and we might also question the basis of Gray’s assertions – his determinism, his reductive materialism, his pessimistic nihilism – which as Nietzsche himself pointed out, are no less value-driven conclusions.

That said, I do like his work. Like Nietzsche, even where you don’t agree with him, his viewpoint provides a useful tool from which to dissect the inbuilt assumptions of and prejudices that drive the scientific humanism that still largely dominates the modern Western worldview.

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Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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